Santino Fontana Wears ‘Tootsie’ For The 21st Century (And Tells What Had To Go) – Tony Watch Q&A

Last week, Tootsie joined Broadway’s million dollar club – the choice group of productions that break the $1 million mark in weekly box office. Along with 11 Tony Award nominations and a star-making turn by lead actor Santino Fontana, the musical adaptation of the 1982 film comedy starring Dustin Hoffman can, in retrospect, seem like a no-brainer, the type of Broadway success that complainers complain about when they gripe over Hollywood pedigrees.

But take a closer look at To Kill A Mockingbird, Network, Pretty Woman, Beetlejuice and Tootsie, and what jumps out are their differences, specifically their varying approaches to their source material. Mockingbird went meta, Network post-modern high tech. Pretty Woman could have benefited from less respect for its celluloid self, Beetlejuice from more. 

Of the musicals, Tootsie found the sweetest balance between old and new, all the more surprising given what would seem, at first consideration, a storyline and worldview best left to the ’80s. When Dustin Hoffman played Michael Dorsey, the struggling New York actor who re-invented himself as Dorothy Michaels to land a soap opera job and found himself in love with, and lying to, the soap’s ingenue Julie (Jessica Lange). By the end, Michael seemed to know more about being a woman than Julie or any other woman in his orbit – or, for that matter, and Hoffman being Hoffman, the earth’s orbit. The term “mansplaining” should have been coined on the spot.

So how did Tootsie find its way into a century when cis and trans women can speak for themselves, thank you very much? What does Santino Fontana know that Dustin Hoffman didn’t? Deadline recently spoke to the Tony-nominated actor about his performance, Tootsie‘s development, what survived along the way and what didn’t. The following interview has been edited and condense from that conversation.

Tootsie, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Robert Horn, choreography by Denis Jones and direction by Scott Ellis, is playing on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre. In addition to Fontana, the musical stars Lilli Cooper, Sarah Stiles, Andy Grotelueschen, Michael McGrath, John Behlmann, Reg Rogers and Julie Halston.

Santino Fontana

Deadline: Before we get started, I was at the performance when the doorknob on the set fell off. You guys handled it beautifully. [“Should we call a locksmith about that tomorrow?”] It got a huge laugh.

Santino Fontana: Oh, God. When was that, I’m trying to remember?  Thursday or Friday?

I told somebody about it, and she said it had to be scripted…

No. Not at all. Not at all.

So how did Tootsie come into your life?

I had done a play reading of something I had written with Scott Ellis directing up at New York Stage and Film, and we hit it off. It was two weeks up in Vassar, and I had a blast with him. He and I got along very well, we had a very similar sense of humor, and we liked each other, and we finished that process, and then he called me like a week later and said, hey, I’ve got a script, will you read it and just tell me what you think. And it was Tootsie.

I kind of launched into a diatribe of like, you can’t mess this up because this movie is so good, and Larry Gelbart’s script is so good, and you’ve got to make sure you get the right actor, it can’t be like a model, a pretty boy, it can’t be someone who can’t really sing, but it can’t be just a singer, it has to be someone who does plays. I went into this whole diatribe, and he was like, I just asked you to read it. That was over three years ago now.

What parts of Tootsie changed over that time?

Oh, God. Everything. Everything. Trying to wrangle this story, for the times that we’re living in, from a loved film into something on stage and then into a musical, and keep all of these characters alive and funny and today is huge. Not to mention, how do you do all that on stage with no time to go into makeup and hair before the next shot?

Julie Halston, Reg Rogers, Santino Fontana

Also, don’t forget, what you can get away with in a movie is a lot, just from the powers of editing and filtering. We have to just turn around and show up as Dorothy, then as Michael, then as Dorothy. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a process where there is, upon starting, so many issues that have to be figured out. That’s why we needed all those readings, and it’s all really Scott leading the way of figuring out, okay, we can’t have a story where we know nothing really about [Julie] the leading lady, and we can’t have a story where Michael teaches a woman anything. And we have to be able to have Michael leave the stage, and come back as Dorothy, and we have to be shocked that we buy into it.

Some things from the movie had to be dealt with straight on, even something as fundamental as the soap opera setting, since soap operas don’t exist in New York anymore. And then that leads to getting rid of the movie’s characters like the old male actor, a stock soap type, who has to read cue cards, which infuriates Dorothy…

There’s so much in a visual medium like a movie that has to be completely altered for the musical to be successful  – looking at a cue card or having a reaction shot on somebody’s eyes isn’t going to work on stage, it’s not the language of the theater. And why are these people singing? So many of those issues have to be figured out.

And you have to make sacrifices, like losing the movie’s great line “How do you feel about Cleveland?” At what point did you lose the character of Julie’s father?

The Charles Durning character. I think that was Robert [Horn] and Scott [Ellis] and David [Yazbek] and [producers] Scott Sanders and Carol Fineman. You know, especially with a musical, you only have so much real estate, and why are we going to have a character that we’re going to introduce almost halfway through the story? Why don’t we just reinvest that real estate in Julie, played by Lilli Cooper, and make this woman, who is a mirror image in so many respects to Michael, but make her a much better grounded, more well-rounded version of Michael? Someone who’s life is acting and has shut off the idea of a “normal” life or what other people would view as a normal relationship, which is exactly what Michael has done too, and now you’ve created a real conflict because you’ve got two people who should be perfect together except one is defrauding the other. I think that was a really smart idea.

At what point in the development of the musical were these things fixed or addressed?

I don’t remember if there was ever the father character in the first version I did, which was three years ago. I do know that they tried different versions of the show within the show, and those songs all changed accordingly to fit what Dorothy is auditioning for. I think, smartly, it kept going back to the theater, that [Tootsie] is a show about people trying to make a living in the theater.

So those are some of the logistical things that needed changing, now let’s talk about some of the larger themes that had to be addressed. It’s interesting that you said right from the start, Scott Ellis knew that Michael “couldn’t teach” Julie anything. Criticism of the movie as dated is largely about exactly that, about mansplaining – Dustin Hoffman’s Michael character telling women about being women.

I think what we did is grab the thing and ask, What do we all love about this movie? The core of the story is a guy who learns to be a better version of himself while trying to pretend to be someone else. He steps into the shoes of another character, and he becomes a better version of himself in the process, and the main conflict is that once he creates that fake persona, he falls in love, and he wants the person that he can’t have. That’s the conflict, and there are eight million versions of that story because it’s always compelling to watch people who become better versions of themselves.

That is the through line that we grabbed onto, and we knew we wanted to be in 2019, and we knew we wanted it to be in the theater and not in the soap opera world, so you put those pieces together. And then everything kind of moves forward in a really smart way with lots and lots and lots of research and lots of consulting, and lots of conversation…

Research and consulting into what?

Into everything. Like, A, do you buy this? And B, is this offensive? What are we saying about women in the workplace, and how many things sadly have not changed since the movie? When Michael, as Dorothy, asks Julie if she’s interested in the director who is flirting with her, and she says, no, I’m not interested in him at all, and Michael, as Dorothy, says well, why don’t you just tell him? And she’s like, Are you nuts? No, you handle it, you respectfully decline, but you want to keep working, you [can’t] insult the guy. That’s not something men deal with often. No one’s ever called me honey at an audition, you know what I mean? But my wife will come home from auditions and be like, He called me sweetie. Maybe it’s not necessarily meant to be offensive or insulting, but it’s an inequality that many people are unaware of.

It’s very diminishing.

Absolutely it’s diminishing. I think Larry Gelbart’s screenplay was incredibly wise and forward thinking for its time, but I think what Robert Horn has done is grabbed the reigns and caught up a little bit. And we got a long ways to go.

Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper

There’s also the very noticeable change from the movie that had to be made: When Michael-as-Dorothy kisses Julie, and Julie at first says she’s not a lesbian but then she reconsiders, and is open to it. When Jessica Lange played Julie, Julie got very freaked out.

I think that Scott [Ellis] and Robert [Horn] came up with that idea, and I was over the moon. I was like, oh my God, yes, of course, that’s exactly what would happen, and we’ve seen it, we know people. You know, sexuality is so much more fluid, and why wouldn’t they be able to do that? If Dorothy was actually a woman, she and Julie would be together. But Michael made the worst decision of his life that has led to the best change in his life. The problem is, he’s defrauded the woman he loves.

There’s another thing that I don’t think the show could manage, or at least I wasn’t able to figure out how you could’ve done it without pulling the thread that unravels the sweater: Why doesn’t Michael, as Dorothy, just say, I’m Michael but I present as Dorothy? He could be open about it now. The idea of a trans woman wasn’t even a possibility to consider when the movie was made, but still I don’t know how the musical even now could have gone into that without…

The whole thing falls apart.

Without the whole thing falling apart.

Michael McGrath

Right, and here’s why, and this is great because we had to deal with this, this is why it would fall apart: The story is of a man who is not being his authentic self, and that is the conflict. A trans woman is a woman who becomes their authentic self when they transition. This story is the story of somebody who is lying to people about who they are, as opposed to being who they really are. In the process of lying, he eventually becomes a better version of himself and understands how disrespectful [his lying] is to people. Michael McGrath, who plays Michael’s agent, has a great line when he basically tells Michael, Be a he, be a she, be a they, use whatever bathroom you want and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t, but it’s disrespectful that you would do this [for a job] when [trans] people are really dealing with all that. It’s a big distinction, and it’s something that we haven’t been talking about for very long and thank God, we’re all having the conversation now. Like I said, we don’t want to offend anybody, and I think the script goes to great lengths to make sure we don’t. This is the story of a man who makes a terrible decision by pretending to be something he is not. It’s an entertaining decision, but it’s a terrible decision.

The show is very funny. I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t expecting that.

It’s undeniably funny. Robert [Horn], the book writer, who is brilliant, he’d be worried about like, I don’t know if they’re going to laugh, and Scott and I would just look at each other like he’s nuts. I’ve been in a lot of comedies that have a lot less laughs than this, and you can’t fake it. You can’t fake getting 13 hundred strangers to laugh at the same moment and be united in a moment. I mean, Carol Burnett came to opening night, and came backstage, and I…


Santino Fontana, Andy Grotelueschen

Yeah, it was insane. I mean, I’m still kind of numb over it. I felt like the show the next day was terrible because I was still thinking of Carol Burnett. There are moments the show has reminded me of The Carol Burnett Show, to have an audience that is so seemingly out of control with laughter. And this cast is fantastic. You saw it with the doorknob, Andy [Grotelueschen] and I being able to not only trust each other but know we’ve got this, we can handle this. It’s really rare to get that opportunity, and I think we’re all pinching ourselves. Even more so because Carol Burnett kind of gave us her blessing. We were like, this is nuts.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times, but walking in heels. Not easy. I’m not asking about your personal life or anything, but is there any experience you had that would allow you to say, I can do this…

No, and you know, my mom actually said that the other day – what made you think you could do this? But I didn’t ever even ask myself that because I think, as an actor, I like to always get to the place of feeling like when we were kids and we’d play like the floor is lava or I’m the king on the mountain. As a kid, you’re never saying, Oh, I couldn’t play a king, or oh, I couldn’t play her. Half the population is women. I look at women every day. Why not? I mean, granted yes, it’s still a terrible decision to pretend to be a woman… 

For a job.

Yes, for a job. That would be offensive and is offensive, but the imagination doesn’t know that, so I didn’t bother to think of that. When you asked about the consulting and research and that process at the beginning, two words I would say are Leslie Flesner, who is in our ensemble. She was also in Hello, Dolly! with me and she went into Cinderella after I’d left. She’s an amazing Broadway dancer, singer, actress, and I told Dennis Jones, our choreographer, I’m going to need help with these heels, and basically, I had a couple hours a week with Leslie where we went through everything, just watching her, trying to copy her, figuring out, oh my God, a woman never stands parallel with her feet apart in high heels. She basically kind of trained me to just be in the heels all the time, so she would have me at home doing chores, and I’d be in heels for what started at like 15 minutes a day, then it was 30 minutes a day, then it was 40 minutes a day. She really walked me through all of that, and I’m very grateful for everything she’s helped me with.

Is the corset really tight, or just for show?

Oh, yes. It’s tight. I mean, it takes a lot of pressure and a lot of zippers and elastic to get my body into the shape of what it is not.

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